“A recipe can be all your life if you want it to”: The chef of Seattle's Tarsan i Jane shares his family's paella secrets (plus his own punk-rock past).
Perfect paella takes practice. It helps if your grandfather ran a paella restaurant in the hills of Valencia and you learned at his knee. Being named Perfecte probably doesn’t hurt, either.
Chef Perfecte Rocher’s grandfather kept sheep up in those hills, and his height and mountain-man appearance earned him the nickname Tarsan in the village. “In the times of Franco, the dictator of Spain, my grandfather was long-haired — if they see you with long hair, they kill you,” Rocher relates matter-of-factly. “And also if you speak Catalan — my family speaks Catalan — they kill you, too.”
Truck drivers came up into the mountains to cart away sand from mines, and his grandfather started making paella roadside to feed them. When it became a restaurant, Tarsan was its name.
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Now Perfecte Rocher runs the restaurant Tarsan i Jane in Seattle, with partner/co-owner/manager/butcher Alia Zaine as Jane. Thursdays through Saturdays, they serve modern Northwest-Valencian cuisine, eschewing menus in favor of set courses dictated by Rocher and the best ingredients his small producers bring to his door. All the cooking is over a wood fire; the airy Frelard room is somehow both casual and cathedral. A recent Seattle Times review awarded Tarsan i Jane three and a half stars. On Sundays only, at lunchtime, they make paella.
Rocher’s path from Tarsan to Tarsan i Jane was not, of course, a direct one. He grew up working in the family restaurant, then, at 17, he moved to London with his guitar and a paella pan hanging from his backpack. He was in two punk-rock bands — the Spermans and the Ulcers — playing “the guitar, the bass, yelling and screaming.” For money, he’d go to restaurants and ask for the owner, with “Everybody looking at me — who’s this guy with the paella pan?” They often looked askance at his offer to cook paella, but, “After, when they try it, they change the face.”
Once he got punk rock (mostly) out of his system, Rocher eventually returned to Spain to cook at renowned elBulli, then at restaurants including Manresa and Campton Place in the United States.
Nowadays, to get truly good paella in Spain, he says, “Go to the mountains.” Seeking it in a city like Barcelona — he stops to think of an equivalent abomination — “It’s like going to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.”
Rocher scoffs at places that carpet their paella with tons of ingredients. No peppers, no chorizo, “Never!” he says, smiling. There are only a very few combinations that are true, in his book. “People call paella everything that’s cooked in this pan. And it’s not.
“It’s not about how many ingredients, it’s about the work you do before,” he insists. Store-bought stock exists, but homemade costs very little and is “infinitely better.”
It’s also all about the rice. Cooking it with the onion poaches it, opening it up — you want to fry it, “to seal the grain.” You also want to use the same kind of rice every time, so you can get used to how much stock it absorbs and try to absorb its mysteries. Even a professional won’t always achieve the socarrat — the crusty, crispy layer of rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan, which Rocher calls “Valencian caviar.”
The bad news is that your paella is extremely unlikely to be perfect. “It’s the years of experience,” Rocher says. He looks baffled when asked how many he’s made total, then starts to do some math out loud, then gives up.
His family always insisted that “You need to listen to paella” — that you can tell when it’s done cooking, that it makes sounds “like a house settling.” He always thought, “Oh, that’s crazy.” But, finally, he can hear it.
“I’m crazy now!” he says.
The more you make it, the closer you’ll get.
Perfecte Rocher’s paella d’arròs negre
Equipment: 60 cm (23 inch) diameter paella pan
For supplies in Seattle: The Spanish Table has (sadly) closed, but all its paella supplies (and more) may now be found at sister shop Paris Grocery.
1 ½ cups baby calamari or local Pacific Northwest spot prawns
2 onions, chopped very fine
2 large local heirloom tomatoes, grated
1 tablespoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
2 cups bomba rice from Valencia
Fish stock (see recipe)
Picadeta (see recipe)
All i oli (see recipe)
1 lemon, cut in wedges
To prepare the paella:
1. Wash the baby or regular calamari and dice into tiny pieces patiently. Warm up fish stock; you will want it to be very hot when you add it.
2. In a pan with a good splash of olive oil, fry the onion. Stir it occasionally over medium heat. Keep over heat for 15-20 minutes. The idea is to caramelize the onion. Once it’s caramelized, incorporate the grated tomato and pimentón.
3. Then add the calamari, and let the water in the pan evaporate for 5-10 minutes until the calamari begins to stick to the pan.
4. Now we want to toast the rice just a little. Add it and stir. Be careful not to burn it. In 4-5 minutes you’ll achieve what you want.
5. After the rice is a little toasted, stoke the wood fire or turn up the heat to high and add the hot fish stock, at least triple the amount of the rice. (Depending on what kind of rice you use, how hot the stock is, and whether you’re using a wood fire or not, the amount of stock can vary. With a wood fire the stock cooks much faster, and on a stove at home it cooks slower. I recommend practicing for a while with the same rice to learn how much stock you will need with your cooking conditions.) From this point, the paella needs to be always at boiling temperature.
6. Add salt to taste to the pan, generously, of course.
7. Spoon about two tablespoons of all i oli into the liquid just before it has all evaporated, scattering it so it doesn’t cook, then gently and quickly stir it in.
8. Add the prawns in the last 3 minutes of cooking so as not to overcook them.
9. When the liquid is just barely gone and the rice is cooked, take the pan off heat and add the final touches to this dish. Picadeta is a very traditional way to finalize dishes in Valencia; put a little over the top to freshen the paella. Put a generous amount of all i oli in the center. Garnish with wedges of lemon, and be sure to squeeze them over the top at the table.
Note: Rocher says paella should be eaten extreme family-style, directly out of the pan — everyone armed with cutlery, designated a section and prepared to defend it.
For fish stock:
3 lbs. fish scraps or shrimp heads (ask your fishmonger to give you good scraps)
2 whole heads of garlic (split each in half)
Extra virgin olive oil (preferably Valencian)
2 bunches of parsley
½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
6 bay leaves
30 black peppercorns
Pinch of saffron
1 cup calamari ink
To prepare the fish stock:
1. Roast the shrimp heads or fish scraps, mixed with a little olive oil, slowly in the oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Then move them around and roast for another 15 minutes until they’re a golden color.
2. Repeat with the onion, then with the tomato, as well as the garlic — make sure you chop the onion and tomato in quarters and add a little olive oil so it doesn’t stick to the pan.
3. After everything is roasted, add it all into a pot with enough water to cover everything. Add all of the ingredients except for the calamari ink to the stock. Raise heat, and as soon as it starts to boil, turn down and let it simmer for 30 minutes. If you don’t want such a fishy taste, add a chicken carcass or chicken legs to balance the fish flavor.
4. Once it’s finished cooking, add the calamari ink and remove from heat. Strain the solid ingredients and save the stock.
For all i oli:
2 local organic egg yolks
1 local organic whole egg
Salt, ½ teaspoon (to taste)
1 ¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
½ cup grapeseed or canola oil
Juice of ½ lemon
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons house-made vinegar (or red wine vinegar from the store)
To prepare the all i oli:
Use hand blender. First add eggs, salt, then slowly mix in the oil and the lemon juice. At the end, add garlic and vinegar. (To make it easier, buy mayonnaise at the store, then mix in the garlic and vinegar.)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
Juice of 1 whole lemon
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
To prepare the picadeta:
Mix everything together.